Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary
American Latino Heritage
The Salinas Valley in present-day New Mexico has been home to a variety of peoples and cultures for hundreds of years. As early as the 10th century, Mogollon and Anasazi tribes established pueblos in the valley that served as major centers of trade between the people of the Rio Grande region and the Plains Indian tribes. When Spanish exploration of the valley began in the late 16th century, the ancient pueblos of Salinas became home to Spanish missionaries and large mission churches. The Pueblo of Quarai contains the best preserved of these churches, El Misión Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Cuarac. Completed c.1629, Quarai would eventually serve as the ecclesiastical headquarters for the Spanish Inquisition in New Mexico until 1674, when droughts and repeated Apache attacks caused the complete abandonment of the pueblo and its mission.
Today Quarai is a National Historic Landmark within the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument (also featured in this itinerary here.) The site contains important ruins from both both the pre and post contact times. The pueblo and mission remains reflect the early period of Pueblo-Spanish interaction, the conflicts between the Spanish church and state, and their overall effects on native culture in the Southwest. Visitors should not miss exploring the impressive, interpreted ruins on a trip through central New Mexico.
Excavations at Quarai revealed human remains and pottery shards dating from as early as 1250 A.D. The inhabitants of the settlement had most likely abandoned it by 1400 A.D., as there is no evidence to indicate that a permanent population lived at the pueblo from 1400 to around 1600. The date of the founding of the Quarai pueblo is a subject of controversy among scholars.
The consensus is that the reoccupation of the pueblo likely occurred before the Spanish initially made contact in the late 16th or early 17th century. The Salinas Valley, home of the Quarai pueblo, was a rich, fertile area at the time, with several other pueblos existing nearby, including Tajique and Chililí. Tiwa speakers likely occupied all three of these pueblos. Neighboring Abó, Gran Quivira and Tabira were Tompiro-speaking communities. (Abó is also featured in this itinerary here.)
Although the Spanish visited the Salinas Valley and several of its pueblos as early as 1540, historical record officially places the Spanish at Quarai in 1626. The Spanish had already successfully established missions at Chililí and Abó, and in December of 1625, the Spanish selected Fray Juan Gutiérrez de la Chica to initiate a new missionary effort at Quarai. Upon his arrival, Gutiérrez reportedly met little resistance from the native population (a rarity in the area) and soon began planning for a new church and convento. Construction of the massive El Misión Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Cuarac began around 1627.
Ruins of the church that exist today show its basic plan as a Latin cross, about 108 feet long and 28 feet wide. The walls are all made of local red sandstone and average 4.5 feet in width – though many measure up to 10 feet at their bases. The wall ruins stand roughly 20 feet tall, but it is likely that they originally towered around 40 feet at the time of construction. The mission surely dominated the landscape of otherwise two or three-story adobe homes. The convento ruins also remain and are also of red sandstone. Excavations in the late 1930s revealed a round kiva within the monastery area. Kivas are an important part of many native religious practices, and the kiva’s presence within the Spanish complex raises interesting questions about how traditional tribal religion intermingled with newly introduced Catholic traditions.
During the 17th century, Quarai remained a key part of the Spanish missionary movement throughout the Southwest – and particularly in New Mexico. In 1633, Fray Estevan de Perea arrived at Quarai to assume leadership. Perea already had been given the powerful role of head of the Holy Office of the Spanish Inquisition for all of New Mexico. Under his supervision, Quarai became one of the most important ecclesiastical posts in the Southwest during the mid-1600s.
At its peak, the Quarai pueblo had approximately 1,000 rooms and housed between 600 and 700 residents of both native and Spanish decent. The pueblo buildings were arranged around a number of small plazas. In addition to the Catholic religion and customs, the Franciscan friars introduced new agricultural and production methods. Extensive farming took place adjacent to the mission and on surrounding lands. Still, the native population at Quarai struggled under the Spanish government-imposed encomienda system – one which demanded annual agricultural payments be made to Spanish soldiers in exchange for military protection.
By the early 1670s, a series of droughts, Apache attacks, and unrest within the Spanish government, eventually led to the abandonment of Quarai. Native inhabitants are believed to have fled and joined their linguistic kinsmen along the Rio Grande. By 1678, all of the Salinas Valley pueblos and their missions had met the same fate, leaving only empty buildings, pottery shards, other artifacts behind for later excavation and interpretation.
Major studies of Quarai have taken place since 1913, when the School of American Archaeology began excavations in the southern-most mound (believed to be the oldest area of the ancient village.) More intensive exploration of the site began in the early 1930s around the time Quarai became a New Mexico State Monument administered by the Museum of New Mexico. Even with the continued investigations and stabilizations at Quarai, much of the original ancient village and the 17th century pueblo remain buried.
Still, visitors to the site today will note the impressive, stabilized mission ruins standing against the landscape. A self-guided trail takes those who want to explore through the church and among the walls of the 17th century pueblo. Much of the village remains unexcavated in the gently rolling mounds surrounding the mission and convento. The historic landmark contains interpretive signs, and a visitor center and small museum stand nearby to help guests understand this important American Indian and Spanish heritage site.
The main access to Quarai is through the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument, in which it is included. The monument offers interpreted tours and self-guided walks through the ruins of Quarai and through Abó and Gran Quivira. The National Park Service provides a Quarai trail map, which is available online here.